Highways and Hunger on Substack

A new piece up on Substack. Check it out here.

An excerpt:

Built in 1955 to augment the nation’s first true superhighway, the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike runs from Plymouth Meeting to Clarks Summit, connecting the east-west route from the Philly Metro through the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos, and into Lackawanna County. 

Before and after the Lehigh Tunnel, bored by Army engineers in the 50s, there are stunning views of expansive green…

…Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is, for far too many people, more like a middle finger. Whether or not you contribute to food banks, you likely have accepted them as a para-capitalist solution to a problem capitalism itself was supposed to solve…

Pilgrims, Paxil, Progress

Note: This post is also available via my Substack. Subscriptions are free.

Pilgrims

Some synchronicity this week. The other day I saw a tweet asking “if money were no object, where would you go on pilgrimage?” I said Bora Bora.

Shortly after, Lawrence Wright shared a picture of Plymouth Rock and said “Plymouth Rock has to be one of the most unremarkable artifacts of American history.”

He’s not wrong.

The LARPing at Plimoth Patuxet (formerly called Plymouth Plantation) is great. They haven’t broken character (or kayfabe) since the 60s. But the rock? It feels kind of shammy. By all means, go to Plymouth. By all means, see the rock. But don’t expect a transcendental encounter with history.

I remember being somewhere once, some tourist destination, and they were advertising free pictures with then-President George H. W. Bush. The father of the family ahead of us in line was incensed at the big reveal: an unconvincing wax figure with River Phoenix hair. Plymouth Rock is not that experience, exactly. It is a rock, after all, and it is in Plymouth, and it doesn’t take much work to imagine that the shore enshrined beneath the 1880’s granite canopy was, indeed, the first ground William Bradford trod since leaving Holland.

In any case, Plymouth is lovely and has many points of interest.

I did a big haul last weekend from 2nd & Charles. One of the books I picked up was the Dover Thrift Editions Great American Short Stories edited by Paul Negri. 19 stories for a dollar fifty, and some great ones. The first entry is “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, early luminary of American letters, writer of The Scarlet Letter, hung-up great-great-grandson of unrepentant Salem witch judge John Hathorne. Hathorne (Nathaniel changed the spelling for greater distance) was also made, by reputation, the fiend-appointed judge in Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

It’s hard to read “Young Goodman Brown” (written in 1835) from anything but a modern perspective. And so the journey into the woods, the meeting with the devil, the damned-to-hell-ness of everyone he knows (his minister, his deacon, his catechist, his father, his grandfather, and so on) reach us through lenses curved by later figures (Jung and Freud, Marx and Bryan, many more). We have, of course, the young person’s native instinct for exposing hypocrisy and bullshit. We have Hawthorne’s greater literary project (deeply psychological, deeply personal). We have, of course, New England Calvinism. We have, I suspect, the echoes of personal trauma, moral failure, family shame. Which is to say, we have in this old work a modern writer and a modern story.

Speaking of Which

As far as I can tell, there are two essential things a writer has to do to be a writer.

  1. A writer has to write.
  2. A writer has to read.

I doubt writers have more hang-ups and compulsions, per capita, than other people.  Everyone has something.  Some things are idiosyncratic. Some are ticks we share with millions of other people. 

In my quiver? OCD. If you have it, you know it’s a massive, intrusive, often-maddening pain in the ass. If you don’t have it, I hope you’re not one of those people who throw the term around like it’s some kind of Marie Kondo superpower that helps you power through your chores. It is absolutely not that.  Not by any means.  

OCD is usually treatable.  If you have it, treat it. I treat mine. The ticks and pulls and triggers are no longer all-consuming, thankfully.  There are vestigial habits, the temptation to think magically, and so on, but, for the most part, these needless organs seldom burst.  I just said they aren’t useful for keeping house or paying bills or finding the remote, but I do wonder if, now that I understand them, they’ve begun to help in other ways.

Last year, I decided I was going to read the most books ever. I started strong with James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Bessel van der Kolk. I read a good bit of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and other poets. But somewhere, let’s call it March, I lost my zeal. Something happened somewhere; something else took precedence, I got distracted, I forgot about my big plans as the demands of every other (needful) thing took over.  My writing also suffered.

People engaged in creative work talk a lot about flow. It’s real, circling back to pilgramic, it can be ecstatic. It turns out my flow state is best primed by really good reading. I suspect as much is true for almost any writer. Sometimes I feel out of words, completely tapped. Reading fills the cistern with new images, new idioms, new ways of seeing things.

I’m reading a lot this year. There’s something decidedly different about my approach and appetite.  I am more energized and more committed than I was last March. I think there are three reasons:

  1. I’m reading more widely. Great literature, stellar nonfiction, books on craft, even the kind of motivational books I’ve tended to avoid.
  1. I don’t force myself to finish one book before starting another. I keep a relatively even pace across a few different titles and genres, and I’m incrementally getting closer to finishing them all.  If I start a book and hate it, I don’t force myself to finish. 
  1. To keep track of my progress, I use an e-reader. Knowing exactly how close I am, percentage-wise, to my goal of finishing a book allows me to redirect idle, time-sucking compulsions toward a goal I actually want to achieve and actually helps me. Seeing my progress helps my subconscious mind create and recreate the compulsive itch into something actually worth scratching. I started the year with a hunch that this would work, and now, halfway through September, I see how I’ve been more able to gamify my progress with physical books as well. 

I’m not saying these will work for everyone, and it’s not some cure-all suggestion for managing your mental health. I’m not making light of compulsions worse than mine. I do, however, think that learning to rewire our neural pathways through positive habits is a good thing, and I know how it’s helped me. A word about those self-help books. They basically teach the same thing. The reason the habits of highly effective people work is because neuroplasticity is real.

If you struggle with compulsions, depression, anxiety or other things, please seek proper care. The right help will make a world of difference, and you’ll be freer than you’ve ever been to train your mind to work in tandem with your heart and spirit.

That’s been my experience.  What’s yours?

MatPat Calls Out the Sesame Street Grownups Over Ongoing Elmo/Rocko Feud

Tybalt and Mercutio. Mr Jones and Axel Heyst.  Steve Austin and Vince MacMahon. Conflict between forces that stand for something larger than themselves catches our attention and makes us want to finish the play, the novel, the film, or the broadcast. 

If you want to dive into the nuts and bolts of how to structure fiction, you don’t need an MFA. You’d do just as well buying a few books on the subject.  I’m reading 20 Master Plots by Ronald Tobias right now and I think it’s very good.  But this post isn’t about how to layer tension into fictive relationships and how to transform story into plot.

This post is about slow-burning narrative conflict, though. This post is about keen (near-obsessive) analysis.  This post is about MatPat and Elmo. Stop him when he’s telling lies:

A Deeper Dive into Stephen Crane, with All My Adjacent Obsessions

I started a Substack (free). The first post is a longer look at my current fascination with Stephen Crane. It all started at The Stone Pony. Here’s the full text (but check out the Substack!):

In the administrative office at my undergrad alma mater, Ursinus College, hangs (or hung, I don’t know if they’ve thought better of it since) a letter from JD Salinger, recommending his children’s babysitter for admission. Salinger recalls his own time as a student at Ursinus fondly in the note, and elements of Ursinus do make their way into his fiction (the characters of Franny and Zooey, the oak tree in the endzone). Having read the small missive, you’d be forgiven for thinking Salinger spent more than a semester at the small liberal arts college in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. For all kinds of reasons, he did not.

Lafayette College sits mostly on a hill in Easton, Pennsylvania, some 55 miles north and east of Ursinus. The quickest route from one to the other approximates the indented Jersey coastline at Perth Amboy, 80 miles east of Allentown, where PA Turnpike exit 56 creates a near-identical vector. There are some personal coincidences here that make me bother: I was born in raised in Allentown, Lafayette is not far, and I never knew that Stephen Crane, late of Asbury Park, spent a sole semester on College Hill in Easton forty years before JD Salinger did the same thing at Ursinus. Incidentally, my grandfather also enrolled at, and did not finish, a course of study at Lafayette. You may know that Lafayette and Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem own the nation’s oldest football rivalry, but you probably don’t know that both Hilda Doolittle and Stephen Vincent Benet have connections to Lehigh. All of this is to say that the Lehigh Valley, where I live, has done a poor job of broadcasting its literary history. Few people even know Sandburg’s magnificent poem that references the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, another local institution of national renown I grew up knowing well.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Auster’s book is long, exhaustive without exhausting. It has been a quick read so far, partly because of his deft surveys of the world into which Crane was born: 19th century Methodism, temperance, suffrage; the early movements for workers rights, the trust-busting of the gilded age. All things I’m already interested in. Among the gems (a six year-old Crane buying his first beer from “a fat Pennsylvania Dutchman” while his mother is giving lectures on temperance stands out) is this wry observation that you may feel as keenly as did Crane.

The source is a letter from Crane to his old classmate Viola Allen upon the publication of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane remembers Allen fondly, and gives a litany of other girls from his time at Claverack Seminary (really, a high school) he has not forgotten, including one Ms. Jennie Pierce:

Alas, Jennie Pierce. You must remember that I was in love with her, madly, in the headlong way of seventeen. Jennie was clever. With only half an effort she made my so very miserable. Men usually refuse to recognize their school-boy dreams. They blush. I don’t. The emotion itself was probably higher, finer, than anything of my after-life, and so, often I like to think of it. I was such an ass, such a pure complete ass–it does me good to recollect it.

Crane’s not looking back from 50 (he would only live to 29). He was about 24 when he wrote this, old enough to believe he’d likely been an ass, young enough to probably still have been one. And he’s obviously still flirty. I’d bet the town of Winesburg, Ohio, that Sherwood (I’m A Fool) Anderson was a Crane devotee. He could not have been aware of this letter, but he echoes the sentiments a generation later in stories like “I’m a Fool” and “Sophistication.”

As for Asbury Park, here we find Crane laying the gravel for what would eventually become Thunder Road.

The Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park. Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, M.D., CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Crane On Boyhood Dreams: Most Men Blush. I Don’t.

There’s a newer version of this post live at my new Substack. (Which is free, because who do I think I am?)

Men usually refuse to recognize their school-boy dreams. They blush. I don’t. The emotion itself was probably higher, finer, than anything of my after-life, and so, often I like to think of it. I was such an ass, such a pure complete ass–it does me good to recollect it.

Stephen Crane to Viola Allen

The context here is Crane’s recollection of Allen and other classmates at Claverack Seminary, including one Jennie Pierce:

Alas, Jennie Pierce. You must remember that I was in love with her, madly, in the headlong way of seventeen. Jennie was clever. With only half an effort she made my so very miserable. Men usually refuse to recognize their school-boy dreams. They blush. I don’t. The emotion itself was probably higher, finer, than anything of my after-life, and so, often I like to think of it. I was such an ass, such a pure complete ass–it does me good to recollect it.

Crane to Allen, as published in Burning Boy by Paul Auster, pp 37-38.

Indeed.

Old Tom Petty Songs I’ve Only Come to Know as a Full-Grown Man

But not me, pretty baby
I still love Tom Petty songs
And driving old men crazy…

Gaslight Anthem, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”

I love Tom Petty and always have. Full Moon Fever (near perfect) came out when I was nine, and I remember stopping on the video for “Running Down a Dream” because it was a cartoon. I got to know “Don’t Come Around Here No More” because it was still in constant rotation on VH1 even four or five years after Southern Accents. Into the Great Wide Open came out when I was in fifth grade and I remember Tom looking like a glorious paisley pirate on SNL. In between those things was the Roy Orbison renaissance, so the Wilburys were always there, too. The greatest hits record came out when I was in junior high, and by then I probably knew all of the big radio hits except “Refugee.” Wildflowers was huge, of course, and then there was “Walls (Circus)” which is maybe one of the best songs ever written.

So, from about 9 to 17, I grew up on the radio, video, and soundtrack hits. Then I started listening more closely to the greatest hits disc (and classic rock radio) and realized the amazing piece of work “Refugee” is. But for whatever reason (probably lack of cash) I didn’t run out and buy the old records. Then came The Last DJ, which I also loved.

So it wasn’t until I was in my late 30s and sprung for satellite that I hard songs like “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” and “Louisiana Rain” and “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me).” They are amazing. Here they are.